To build a better school board in Baltimore County

Our view: Governance by gubernatorial appointees has led to a body that isn't open and accountable to parents, and it needs to change

August 04, 2011

There is ample evidence that Baltimore County's school board has been failing to do its job of representing the community and holding the superintendent accountable. In just the last few years, we've had the debacle of an overheated Ridgely Middle School, ethics questions surrounding the system's use of a former top administrator's proprietary grading system and software, no-bid contracts with a firm run by a former colleague of Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, the uproar over the system's sudden crackdown on outside groups using the schools for fundraising, and the district's decision to fill administrative jobs instead of classroom positions.

What appears to have been going on over the last several years is a classic case of "captive board syndrome" — a phenomenon in which the superintendent controls the information the board receives, leading to a situation in which it effectively works for him rather than the other way around. Despite efforts by some — including new chairman Larry Schmidt — to increase openness and accountability, it's clear that the current system in which the governor appoints board members isn't working and should be changed. The hard question is how.

A committee of state legislators from Baltimore County — those who have the ultimate power to change the current system — has been holding public hearings and getting an earful from parents about the need for change. Now a majority of the County Council has written a letter to the committee advocating for a partially elected board. Their idea is to have seven members be elected by County Council districts and four be appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the council.

We have been generally supportive of such a hybrid board, and the idea has distinct advantages. Elected school board members would undoubtedly be more responsive to the public, because they will have to stand for re-election. The system would guarantee geographic diversity on the board and ensure that every area of the county had a strong advocate. At the same time, maintaining some appointed board members would serve as a check in cases when the board needs to make potentially unpopular decisions.

But there are possible disadvantages as well. Because an elected board would not have the power to levy taxes, members could craft budgets that are politically popular but fiscally reckless. The elected board members would not necessarily reflect the racial diversity of the county (though the executive's appointments could help even that out). And it's not clear that a 7-4 ratio of elected to appointed members is ideal, but there would be no easy fix for that. Electing fewer members would require either countywide election or the creation of special new districts, and appointing more would quickly lead to a board that was unwieldy.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has favored a smaller board with members appointed directly by the executive and confirmed either by the council or the state's legislative delegation. A smaller board and local appointment would increase accountability, but it would also diminish the board's independence. There is some value in having a board whose job is to propose a budget based on what it believes is necessary to properly educate the county's children and a county executive and council whose job is to square that with fiscal reality. More direct control by the executive could remove that healthy tension.

A spokeswoman said Mr. Hairston has not taken a position on the matter.

There is no foolproof system for school governance. There are elected boards that work well and elected boards that are dysfunctional; witness the case of Howard County, where one member has sued the board over alleged open meetings and public records violations, and the other members have voted to recommend he be removed. And some appointed boards work well — Baltimore City's board, for example, sought out reform-minded CEO Andrés Alonso and has provided him support for his efforts to remake the system.

But the one thing that should be clear by now to the legislators studying the matter is that the status quo isn't working for county parents. Whether the county adopts a hybrid model, direct county executive control or some other model, it needs to change.

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